Humayun Saeed can finally talk about being part of The Crown, Netflix’s award-winning series based on the life of the British royal family, just about to stream out its fifth season.
For the longest time, he couldn’t do so. In fact, Humayun never even confirmed that he was part of the series. There was conjecture that he was going to be seen in it when he was spotted by fans in London and, eventually, the news was broken by Icon among others, but still without any on-the-record confirmation from him. As one of Pakistan’s longest serving leading men as well as one of the country’s most successful producers, Humayun is, of course, inevitably recognised by Urdu-speaking audiences wherever he goes.
People asked questions — so did I, every time I met him — but Humayun would remain deadpan. He wouldn’t nod, he wouldn’t even raise his eyebrows or blink. His acting prowess was on full display — he acted like he hadn’t heard you!
It is a relief, then, to finally have him smile and utter actual sentences as he begins to discuss his international debut in one of the world’s most illustrious original series.
Humayun will be playing Dr Hasnat Khan, the British-Pakistani surgeon who had a two-year-long relationship with the late Princess Diana. A first glimpse of his character in the show has just been released and his transformation is impressive.
The makers of The Crown are famous for being sticklers for details and Humayun is barely recognisable. Gone is the desi hero, out to woo his lady love and indulging in a bit of song and dance along the way, replaced by an unassuming, sombre doctor who the Princess would refer to as ‘Mr Wonderful’.
We start off with the most obvious question: how did he get cast in the series?
“It started with a call from Hamid Hussain, who is now my talent agent,” he says. “He used to manage Bollywood star Nargis Fakhri and I was in touch with him earlier to cast Nargis in my film. We had remained in touch since then.
“One evening I got a call from him and he informed me that there was a really important international project that he had in mind for me but I would need to send an audition for it. I only remember auditioning for the first few projects at the start of my career but I know this is a norm in the West and agreed to it.”
I interrupt him: the concept of casting agents is unknown to the Pakistani entertainment industry but is it necessary for an actor hoping to work internationally to be represented by a casting agent who would then keep an eye out for potential opportunities?
“Yes, it is important to have a talent agent. That is how actors around the world operate, through talent agents that regularly present you for relevant projects and roles.”
We return to the story of how he became ‘Mr Wonderful’. “Next, I signed an NDA [a non-disclosure agreement, which meant that he could not discuss the role with anyone] and was pleasantly surprised to know that the role was for The Crown. I had seen The Crown and was aware of its popularity. It was an exciting notion that I stood a chance to be part of the series.
“I sent my audition and, after this, I was asked to do an online reading with the director and then with Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Princess Diana in the new season. Things had moved really fast till this stage. However, after my reading with Elizabeth, I didn’t hear back from Hamid. I resigned myself to thinking that the role had gone to someone else. But then, on the tenth day, I got a call from Hamid and all he said was ‘Congratulations!’ Soon, I was in London, isolating for a week before my first day on set!”
Did the show’s stature intimidate him when he was contemplating working in it?
“More than being intimidated, I feel that this show puts extra responsibility on anyone who is part of it,” he muses. “People naturally have strong feelings about characters in the show, and memories of the events that we are depicting. Also, some of the people we are representing are alive or have family members who are still alive and that means all of us who are part of this show have to take the responsibility of our roles seriously.”
He continues, “I feel [screenwriter] Peter Morgan has done an amazing job in handling every character’s portrayal sensitively. This is the show’s biggest highlight.”
Did Humayun research into Dr Hasnat’s character prior to coming on set? Or was he guided by The Crown’s team on the doctor’s personality and relevance to the story?
He reveals, “Before filming began, I got to do a workshop with a real surgeon in the UK to understand how a surgeon would behave and react on the job. Of course, I knew about Dr Hasnat Khan even before I got this role. After my casting was confirmed, the team shared research material with me on the doctor. It included a few interviews as well as some images.
“Dr Hasnat Khan is a very private person, which was why he and Princess Diana broke up — he couldn’t handle being in the limelight. Due to this, there is very limited material on him available in the public domain. So I had to study whatever was shared with me in detail.”
How was the energy on set? What was his rapport like with his co-actors? “It was a learning experience,” says Humayun. “Most of my scenes are with Elizabeth Debicki and her commitment to her work is just amazing. She is an actress with a considerable number of impressive roles to her credit and yet, here she was, working hard, trying to do her best.
“I am always nervous before I begin working on a project and, in this case, with a completely new team, for a series that is watched worldwide, I naturally had apprehensions. I told Elizabeth I was nervous before we started filming and she was very sweet. She told me that, until our rehearsal, even she had been nervous, but now she was confident that we would do a great job. This definitely helped!”
Humayun has always played the hero in the Pakistani entertainment industry. Did he get perturbed by how his looks were transformed so that he could play the down-to-earth, not very fashionable doctor?
“I would sometimes try to push up my hair right before a scene,” he laughs, “but the stylists on set would immediately notice and they would put my hair back in place. When I saw myself on screen for the first time, I was completely taken aback! I didn’t look like Humayun Saeed at all, but like the doctor.
“On a serious note, the makers of The Crown are extremely particular about details and the look that they had created for the doctor had to be followed to the tee. It was very impressive seeing firsthand how they looked into every tiny nuance.”
He continues, describing his transformation into Dr Hasnat: “The hair, make-up and styling was done in such a way that my face looked different. My hair and moustache were changed. My hair was thinned and it was parted sideways so that it seemed that I was slightly balding.
“I also stopped watching my diet for a while. Usually for roles, I have to watch what I eat in order to not gain weight but, in this case, I just ate whatever I felt like!” Humayun grins at this and I am reminded of the regimental diets and workout sessions he often puts himself through to fit into a certain part. A role that required all-out binges must have come as a relief!
Now that the series will be streaming out on Netflix, how does he think his role in it could possibly impact his career?
“I can’t tell if there will be an impact,” he admits. “Yes, when you work in a series like this, you learn a lot and you can apply your experiences to the work you do later, back at home. I think I don’t look at it like a personal exposure. I feel I am representing my entire industry and every Pakistani actor who has worked internationally has contributed towards other actors getting similar opportunities.”
It is important to point out here that not only is Humayun Saeed an actor with 25 years of experience, but he has also been producing for a very long time, churning out hit TV dramas and breaking local box office records with a series of films. The global arena may have just awakened to his acting potential but, by no means, is Humayun an amateur.
The Crown is well-known for its brilliance and it is impressive that Humayun is marking his first global footprint with the series. But there could be so much more that the future could hold.
For one, international series are now often looking out for actors with the same nationality as the characters that they are meant to enact. More global opportunities, for Humayun as well as others from the Pakistani acting fraternity, could arise every time a character from the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent has to be played.
There could also be potential for Humayun Saeed, the producer, who has already proven his mettle on his home ground and could now explore further, with an international web-series, perhaps for a major OTT (over-the-top) platform such as Netflix.
As we wrap up our conversation, I am reminded of a time, two odd years ago, when I had conversed with a dejected Humayun, isolating at home because the coronavirus pandemic had just broken loose. His productions had come to a temporary standstill due to the necessary Covid-19 precautions, including his movie London Nahin Jaunga, which had been halfway through shooting. Cinemas all over Pakistan had shut down and the future looked murky. “We don’t know what will happen next,” he had pessimistically said to me.
And yet, it was during the pandemic, when life as we knew it came to a standstill, that Humayun connected with The Crown’s team online and subsequently got cast in it.
It just goes to show that there can be silver linings on the darkest of clouds. For Humayun Saeed, it definitely shone bright with his casting as Diana’s ‘Mr Wonderful’.
That’s just wonderful.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, November 6, 2022